Wintry Moods

The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy practices an astringent minimalism. Her icy, rigorous fictions are naturally preserved in the manner of an alpine corpse. The elegance of her prose disguises its lurid appeal. Elements of the gothic mode are often present – suicide, terror, insanity – though scrupulously denied the fuel necessary for spectacle. Something is always held back, a force at odds with its own circumscription. While reading a Jaeggy novel, one senses the dark sea roiling beneath the ice, the uncharted depths, entire phyla of creatures, great shelves of stone. But her restraint never falters; the hoary crust remains inviolable. ‘She could even tidy the shelves of the void’, one of her characters says admiringly of another. The dedicated reader of Jaeggy feels something similar about the author. This austerity is a matter of profound artistry. But over the course of a four-decade career, it has also come to suggest its own repressed opposition. The implications of Jaeggy’s fictions are forever attempting to escape her control, like light around the edges of a collapsed star.

Jaeggy, 81, was born in 1940, in Zurich. She grew up speaking German, French, and Italian. (She would later translate Marcel Schwob and Thomas de Quincey into Italian, the language in which she writes.) Like several of her protagonists, she spent her adolescence at a Swiss boarding school. Having completed her studies, she modelled in the United States before moving to Rome. There she befriended the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, who sometimes appears in her stories, and married Roberto Calasso, the novelist and future editor of the prestigious publisher Adelphi Editions. Her stock has lately risen in the Anglophone world. The writer and translator Tim Parks discovered her first masterpiece, Sweet Days of Discipline (1989), while browsing a bookstore in Italy in the early ‘90s. (The book had already established her reputation there.) Its recent reissue aligned with a vogue for short, elliptical fictions written by women, including rediscoveries like Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (1979) and Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark (1983), and newer works by writers like Kate Zambreno, Sigrid Nunez, and Nathalie Léger. Jaeggy is too severe and macabre for a Ferrante-like sensation and too good to fade into respectful obscurity. Instead, she is passed around like secret cargo among devotees who have come to rely on her exactingness, her black humour, and the clean, crystalline beauty of her prose.

An early novel, The Water Statues (1980), has recently been published by New Directions, in a translation by Gini Alhadeff. It is a strange addition to Jaeggy’s canon of frozen miniatures, a brief and mesmeric work structured in part like a play. (A dramatis personae is provided.) The novel concerns a man named Beeklam, a recluse who stocks the flooded basement of his Amsterdam villa with statues. His father, Reginald, lives in seclusion with an enigmatic servant, Lampe. Father and son circle the abyss of their late wife and mother, Thelma. There is no plot so much as a series of wintry moods, a vast, disembodied brooding. Narration proceeds in a sort of depleted roundelay, with Beeklam, Reginald, servants, and family friends drifting through the opiate fog of memory. As in much of Jaeggy, this obsessive recursion signals morbidity. For Beeklam, being a son means inheriting an already fallen world. His nostalgia is a form of resentment. ‘He had a horror of anything hereditary’, he says of himself, ‘because whatever comes to us by natural inheritance belongs to the dead’.

This is a familiar anxiety in Jaeggy’s fictions, which often dramatize the unwelcome legacies – financial, psychological, physiognomic – that entangle her narrators in baffled need and obligation. The inscrutability of family life estranges them from the social rituals of the adult world. Friendship, sex, and community become confounding and self-negating trials. In Sweet Days of Discipline, a young woman develops an obsession with a fellow student, Frédérique, at a Swiss boarding school. While the devouring intensity of their relationship takes centre stage, the novel is also notable for its cast of despised mothers and distant fathers, inscrutable figures who visit during holidays for brief hotel lunches or send cards in which nothing is offered or explained. Money is often given in lieu of time and attention. Bought off or ritually abandoned, the students seem unable to enjoy their youth while remaining forever mired within it. Jaeggy offers a vision of ‘senile childhood…protracted almost to insanity’. That this condition carries over into maturity is suggested by Frédérique’s eventual fate. (At twenty, she lives ‘as if she were in a grave’.) The girls’ savage intimacy is in some sense a response to this unstated filial lack.

S.S. Proleterka (1993), a semi-autobiographical novel in which a woman remembers a cruise she took as a girl with her dying father, advances the conceit. The girl’s absent mother, acting as legal guardian from South America, authorizes the cruise as a kind of farewell tour. But the father’s reticence and social enervation render him unknowable. He is a living tomb, sealed in silence and mystery. The girl ends up spending her nights with various members of the ship’s crew in a sexual initiation that is itself a kind of annihilation, a running from emptiness to emptiness. Through it all there is a defensive posturing typical of Jaeggy’s narrators, though this can’t quite dispel the sense that the novel represents an inverted love letter to her father:

Children lose interest in their parents when they are left. They are not sentimental. They are passionate and cold…They are no longer creatures that have been abandoned, but those who mentally beat a retreat. And they go away. Towards a gloomy, fantastic and wretched world…Some children look after themselves. The heart, incorruptible crystal. They learn to pretend. And pretence becomes the most active, the realest part, alluring as dreams. It takes the place of what we think is real. Perhaps that is all there is to it, some children have the gift of detachment.

The publication of The Water Statues offers an intriguing view into the early development of the Jaeggy mythos. Many recognizable elements of her mature fictions are present – bewildered children, distant or dead parents, stasis, elegant lacunae – though they are collected here into a glancing and uncharacteristically lyrical novel. Those used to the gorgeously pared sentences of the later Jaeggy will be surprised to find a comparative surplus of language. This voluptuousness lends the proceedings a languid quality. All is submersion, iridescence, intoxication. (A late scene in which snails become drunk after eating cabbage leaves coated in beer droplets acts as a microcosm for the novel: creatures enmeshed in slowness, slime, inebriation, and curious beauty.) The specific motivations of Beeklam and the others are suggested but never spelled out directly. They move through a series of associative preoccupations – water, time, houses, rooms, parks – meditating, singly or in pairs, on the accumulation of years.

Beeklam’s habit of collecting statues to store in the lower regions of his villa suggests the subterranean posture of the novel. ‘From childhood he’d been a collector, museums were in him’, we are told, ‘statues were his playthings, a privilege of all who are born lost and start out from where they end’. The flooded basement seems immune to the flow of time, the marble figures he surrounds himself with displaying an enviable and soothing permanence. (He names at least five of them after his mother and her friends.) ‘I’ve spent a great deal of time in these basements’, he says early on, ‘not that I was weary of the sun, of the open air: I was simply losing control of the hours and of life’. It is only in the basement where the intimate pressures of history are returned to him. There his passion attains a certain surreal animation, ‘as though the irrigated statues were walking about aimlessly, like wading birds’. A mysterious existential transaction occurs with each descent. ‘As in fairy tales’, Beeklam’s servant, Victor, says, ‘we have come back up from the basements, laden with the years, tranquil, unwearied, almost not alive’.

The novel’s second section centres on Katrin, an old friend of Thelma’s who, while in boarding school, was accused by the head mistress of being in the grip of ‘some inscrutable witchcraft’. (The novel can sometimes feel like a testing ground for Jaeggy’s enduring archetypes.) Katrin lives with her companion, a widower named Kaspar, and both are attended to by Lampe, the servant previously employed by Reginald. (Some echo here of Kant’s servant Lampe, similarly dull, devoted, and dismissed?) The sticky, incestuous web of connections contributes to the feeling of airlessness and suspension. A speaking crow appears – this, too, is pure Jaeggy, the cryptic animal, a recurring motif alongside twins, gardens, crystals, crosses – and summons the group together for some final reckoning. Time and class overlap in Katrin’s pavilion, as servants and spectral, threadbare aristocrats speak past one another, obscure their motivations, and remember in a way very like forgetting.

Their meeting is partly to do with Reginald, who plays the familiar figure of the impenetrable father. At the age of seventy, he suddenly deserts the aforementioned Lampe with the ‘amiable freedom sometimes found in saints and the elderly’. The attempt to bridge this parental desertion – inevitably doomed in Jaeggy’s fictions – is enacted by Beeklam. ‘It is odd how suddenly the urge comes over us to find a certain person who has disappeared’, he says, ‘and we are naïve enough to think that lost things become so small, idle, and wayward that we might suddenly find them again on the ground’. He eventually discovers his father in a mountain sanatorium. Reginald is drunk and surrounded by other itinerants who think of their own phantom sons. The exchange between the two is terse and inconclusive. An attendant eventually pushes the young man out the door: ‘Are you here to identify someone? Go away’.

The Water Statues is a novel in which identifications of any kind – between reader and text, or character and character, or past and present – are never less than uncertain. Questions linger. We may ask, for instance, who this play is put on for. Over what stage does Beeklam wander? Is anyone watching the players? These are actors – children, parents – in search of a commensurate form, a drama to explain their diminishment and their distance. This is the great, hidden drama of Jaeggy’s fictions, to supply relation with adequate structure. Her horror and impotence before the fact of heredity can only be countenanced by way of literature’s delusions. The gorgeous vice grip of her prose is finally a fantasy of control. For these boarders, itinerants, and spiritual orphans – an entire deracinated kingdom – memory and death are life’s compensations. The novel ends with the image of a sundial surrounded by Beeklam’s statues: ‘From beneath chipped lids, placid eyes gaze at Time’. But for all the scene’s arrested motion, the dial’s shadow continues moving, ‘black and slithery’. Springing mindlessly from the light and the stone, it moves according to laws it cannot fathom. It is this liquid darkness that Jaeggy returns to continuously. In her incomparable fictions, shadows cannot help but apprehend their blinding source.

Read on: Jon Halliday, ‘Switzerland – The Bourgeois Eldorado’, NLR I/56.